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Post-study work opportunities for overseas students do exist in the UK, despite a popular view that they have all but disappeared. But higher education leaders need to do more to make prospective and current students aware of what is available, argues Jo Attwooll, Programme Manager at Universities UK.
The UK’s universities are world-leading and remain the second most popular destination for international students (after the US). Much of this success is a result of the quality and reputation of the UK higher education sector, but also its inherently international nature. It is widely recognised that having an international staff and student body is a marker of a world-leading institution.
But the UK’s global position is not assured. It faces growing competition from many regions of the world as countries look to attract the ever-growing numbers of students who seek a higher education experience outside of their home nation. UNESCO estimates that the number of globally mobile students in tertiary education will increase from just over four million in 2010 to seven million by 2020. This represents a significant opportunity for the UK if it can retain a globally competitive offer to prospective students.
One component of the UK’s overall offer which attracts both controversy and misrepresentation relates to the post-study work opportunities available to graduating international students. For many young people looking to study abroad, an important determining factor in their choice of destination is the ability to stay and work in that country for a time-limited period after they graduate. Many of the UK’s major competitors have sought to enhance post-study work opportunities in recent years in a bid to attract more international students.
In this context, the UK government’s decision to close the Tier 1 post-study work route in 2012 was unhelpful, particularly in the way the move was perceived overseas. The Tier 1 route was not only simple in its structure but easy to market, which contributed to its popularity with international students. Its closure was controversial and resulted in media reports, particularly in India, that the UK no longer has any post-study work opportunities. This claim is not only damaging and misleading, it is untrue. There remain a variety of post-study work options available to international students who wish to remain in the UK after their studies.
The first option is the Tier 2 route which requires students to have a graduate job offer and to meet minimum salary requirements. Although these requirements are more stringent than the requirements for the old Tier 1 Post Study Work route, almost 6,000 graduating international students accessed this route in 2014, an increase of 27 per cent from the previous year.
There are also options available under the Tier 5 route which allows non-EU graduates to gain work experience, in the form of training schemes or paid internships, provided they are being paid equivalent to the national minimum wage. Internships are offered by employers as diverse as the Bar Council, BAE Systems and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Take-up of opportunities via this route increased by 45 per cent last year albeit from a low base. Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly scope to raise awareness of this option and increase the numbers accessing it.
For budding entrepreneurs, there is the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) Scheme which allows international graduates with a genuine and credible business idea to start up their own business on graduation. Almost 500 have done so and its popularity is growing with numbers entering this route increasing by 40 per cent between 2013 and 2014.
Graduating PhD students also have access to the Doctorate Extension Scheme, which enables them to stay in the UK to seek or pursue employment for up to 12 months on graduation. Over 600 students have taken advantage of the scheme in the two years since its introduction. Similar to the Tier 5 route, there remains much that the sector and government can do to promote this option and ensure prospective students are aware of it.
There is also a huge amount that universities are doing to enhance the employability of all students, domestic and international during their studies. This includes work experience, extensive careers advice and many volunteering opportunities. International students at UK universities are also permitted to work part-time during term-time and full-time during vacations which provides an additional opportunity to gain work experience during their time in the UK.
In spite of these varied opportunities, it is clear that much more needs to be done to market these opportunities successfully to prospective students and to improve the take-up of such schemes amongst current international students.
One clear issue is that the existing work routes available to graduating international students are not obviously labelled as post-study work options. A simple re-branding of these options under a coherent post-study work banner would be a useful first step in helping both the government and the sector to promote the opportunities available more effectively. This will be vital in an increasingly competitive market where students have more choice than ever.
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